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By John Wilcockson
When Andy Hampsten survived the snowstorm over the Passo di Gavia at the 1988 Giro d’Italia and took over the maglia rosa (see Hampsten and the 1988 Pink Jersey: Part 1) the battle to become the first American to win the world’s second most prestigious grand tour was far from over. There were still seven days to go, including two time trials and four mountain stages, before the finish in Vittorio Veneto.
The traumatic stage 14 over the Gavia blew the race apart, and everyone was glad to get into bed that night in the little alpine town of Bormio, particularly the riders who had suffered hypothermia, including Hampsten’s 7-Eleven teammate Bob Roll.
Hampsten was reluctant to talk about his dramatic experiences on the Gavia that evening, so I went to interview him in his hotel room the next morning. After describing in detail the epic day, he ended by saying, “After the race I was just an emotional ruin. I went up to the podium to try to do the TV interview and I just left. I couldn’t handle it. I went back to the car and hyperventilated — the car was nice and hot — and sat there. Emotionally, I was on fire. I cried. I dried myself off a little and put on some more clothes. And after 10 minutes I was okay.”
Following the interview, we chatted about what would be his first day wearing the pink jersey. There was the prospect of another snow-ravaged stage. The highest mountain pass in Italy, the 9,035-foot Stelvio, was on the menu followed by a summit finish at the ski station of Merano 2000.
Although most of the race favorites were now five or minutes behind leader Hampsten, the race was far from over. Hampsten was separated from second-place Erik Breukink — the blond Dutchman who won the stage into Bormio — by only 15 seconds, and Swiss challenger Urs Zimmerman (third-place finisher at the 1986 Tour de France) was just over four minutes in arrears. Also lurking were two of the Giro’s earlier race leaders, the Toshiba team’s Frenchman Jean-François Bernard (third at the 1987 Tour) and Del Tongo-Colnago’s Italian Franco Chioccioli, along with his teammate Flavio Giupponi.
While Hampsten would have the support of only six 7-Eleven-Hoonved teammates (Dane Jens Veggerby and American Roy Knickman had dropped out earlier in the three-week race), Breukink had the backing of the reigning World Cup champion Panasonic-Isostar team, while Zimmerman led Carrera, the top Italian team. It was going to be a tough fight to defend the jersey.
MORE STORMY WEATHER
The wet, cold weather continued, with snow above 6,000 feet elevation. Fortunately for Hampsten and the Giro’s other 142 survivors, snowdrifts had closed the Stelvio and they would be taken by car on a loop through Switzerland to the other side of the mountain.
With a rearranged start at Spondigna, stage 15 would be just 83km long, most of it downhill or flat before the difficult 15km climb to the finish. 7-Eleven team director Mike Neel said he “ordered the team to ride tempo to make sure everyone arrived at Merano together before the climb. We may have ridden too fast, but it made sure that Andy would not get attacked before the climb.”
As soon as the road tilted up past alpine meadows soaked by the storm, Bernard accelerated. Zimmermann and Chioccioli followed him, while Hampsten decided to remain with Breukink and Giupponi 200 meters behind. Bernard — who lost nine minutes over the Gavia the day before — would drop his two shadows and take his third stage win of the race.
In the battle for pink, Breukink managed to stay with Hampsten until 9km from the top, when the American’s relentless pace proved too much, but the Dutch rider did well to concede only 27 seconds by the finish.
“It was a tough climb,” Hampsten noted. “Breukink rode very well. I think we were both tired from yesterday.” Asked for his opinion on the two leaders, Bernard said, “Hampsten is the clear favorite now. He is stronger than Breukink on the climbs and he’ll be able to match him in the last time trial.”
Memories of the snowy Gavia were still haunting the peloton at the start in Merano of stage 16, which was due to take the pack over the giant 8,232-foot Rombo Pass into Austria. Some riders even wanted the race neutralized when persistent rain turned to snow as they climbed into the clouds. The pack came to a halt in a tunnel.
While officials argued with the protest’s ringleaders, Hampsten sat calmly in his warm team car. But he had to scramble back to his bike when, without warning, the race was on again. The slow, bizarre ascent of the Rombo, with its two “protest” halts, took two hours and lulled many into a false sense of security. But then all hell broke loose.
Just before the summit, where some stopped to don extra clothing for the long descent, the Panasonic team’s Urs Freuler and Peter Winnen triggered a surprise attack. Suddenly, there was a lead group of 15 zooming downhill past ski slopes into Austria. Hampsten and Norwegian teammate Dag-Otto Lauritzen were safely in the breakaway, but not Zimmermann, Giupponi, Chioccioli and Bernard.
The move was a big danger to them, but was also a potential threat to Hampsten because Breukink had no fewer than six teammates to help him at the front. Perhaps they would isolate the race leader and then try to spring Breukink loose before the stage finish.
The situation became clearer in the valley, where the snow and rain gave way to warmer, brighter conditions. The break gained two minutes before Zimmermann, Bernard, Chioccioli and nine others organized a pursuit. Such was the intensity of their effort — the chasers only caught the break in the final few kilometers — that the 126km between the Rombo summit and the Innsbruck finish were raced at a crazy 49.4 kph.
Hampsten managed to keep his 42-second lead over Breukink on that stage, and on the following one back across the border into Italy. The American had gotten a glimpse of the hard work expected of his team to keep the maglia rosa. But all the pressure would be on Hampsten for stage 18, an individual 18km mountain time trial from Levico Terme up to Vetriolo.
(This story of Hampsten’s defense of the 1988 pink jersey will be continued later in the week.)